Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Politics of Flair

Jennifer Aniston's boss in OFFICE SPACE asks her if she wants to express herself or not?

Saturday evening, our restaurant server took a crayon and wrote his name on the paper tablecloth, upside down. He wrote it that way so we could read it. Some trick, I thought. And then I wondered, okay, whose cute idea was this?

Some waiter or waitress somewhere in this middling-expensive restaurant chain decided to do this once, and now everybody has to.

Maybe she just wanted to have some fun or be different and unique. So, she took the crayon that you check off your order with (another cute idea?) and wrote her name, upside down. This was part of her shtick, so she could get more tips and try to enjoy her job a little more. And then, some boss said, hey, Suzie here has TEAM SPIRIT, and you ALL must do this dumb thing that she finds enjoyment in, or that she has made uniquely hers.

In short, management STOLE the idea from some waitress and then forced everyone else, even those not normally given to cutesy ideas (which worked perfectly well for Suzie, I realize) to write their names upside down. I imagine Suzie was not a popular character at her workplace, particularly with those people who didn't want to do this dumb thing that Suzie enjoyed doing.

Barbara Ehrenreich wrote about this copycat phenomenon in her book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, in which she posed as a real live working class person (I can hear the NPR listeners gasping!) and worked at Walmart and a variety of other places, including restaurants. At one point, to curb her boredom during slow times, she starts freshening up the salads on the buffet. She is complimented for this by management, and feels a silly sense of pride. Another waitress then intervenes and tells her to STOP DOING THAT. Why? Because if management likes it, they will force them all to do it, even when they aren't slow. The reader can feel Ehrenreich's momentary surprise, even though I knew as soon as she did it, that she should ask someone first. (You know you are working class to the core, when you know the rules for jobs even better than the one writing the damn book.)

A good measure of identity in the workplace is whether you are forced to wear flair or do something equally dorky, such as greet the customer as soon as they enter! (book/video store rules) And if you are truly allowed to wear what you want? Anytime? You must be somebody important. Do you wear a dopey name-tag with a little pin affixed, letting everyone know how many years you have been employed at said establishment? Do you have buttons on your officially team-colored smock, vest or apron, advertising various wares for sale?

How about a button that instructs people to "ASK ME ABOUT"--blah blah blah?

In the movie OFFICE SPACE, Joanna the waitress (Jennifer Aniston) is admonished by her boss that she isn't wearing enough flair. She is confused, since she is wearing the regulation X number of buttons (the definition of "flair")--so she wrinkles her brow--what is the problem? Her boss replies, sighing heavily at her obvious lack of team spirit, see Brian over there? He is wearing 37 pieces of flair! Now if you think the MINIMUM is good enough, well--(the boss shakes his head, disappointed) and Aniston is still puzzled: "More then? You want me to wear more?"

The boss sighs. Poor thing doesn't get it.

"You want to EXPRESS yourself, don't you Joanna?"

And yes, there it is. Expressing yourself, for a working class person, is doing what management tells you to do, even the dopiest, dumbest thing.

The first person who ever wore the 37 buttons, or wrote their name upside down, or wore the cutesy name-tag with cutesy shit attached thereon, WAS expressing themselves, most assuredly. However, where do they get the idea the rest of us want to express ourselves identically to this other person? Would we all decorate our houses the same way, wear the same shoes? Of course not. So, why would we all want to deck ourselves out for work the same, or do showboat things like write our names upside down on a paper tablecloth?

Before evilll Walmart invaded my neighborhood, I occasionally shopped there. There was one older woman whose blue Walmart smock was completely covered in buttons and pins; some represented products sold by Walmart, but some were about Jesus, and some were about Star Wars. And some were about stuff like the American Cancer Society, pink ribbon-symbols for breast cancer and all that kind of fund-raising, do-gooder stuff. I used to get in her line, just to read all the buttons. I told her how much I liked them, and she beamed--this was obviously a collection of long-standing. (I have also collected buttons and pins for many decades, and I have one hat chock-full of them too.)

Some time ago, I saw the same woman still employed at the Walmart. However, she had been reeled in considerably... her flair, her OWN FLAIR, the flair she collected for herself, was mostly gone. She had a few buttons left, the ones given the green-light by management: buy this, buy that, yada yada. I was saddened by that, although I had long expected it. Individuality in the workplace, actually "expressing yourself"? Ha. This is permissible only if you make a certain amount of money. Not for us.

But they had really gotten too strict, I thought. Yes, I fully expected Jesus to be gone, but was surprised Star Wars was gone, too. I mean, aren't Star Wars toys sold in the toy department; aren't the countless videos and video games sold at Walmart, too? Why get rid of those? I felt sad for my sister button-collector.

I got in her line, that day, as always. And I said to her, "I remember, you used to have all the buttons and pins on your smock."

She rolled her eyes at me, "Don't even get me started," she said, explaining they made her stop wearing them.

"Was it Jesus?" I asked, conspiratorially.

Her eyes flashed, "I have only got compliments from people, it wasn't any customer complaining. My customers love me," she said with a pride I recognize. Yes, I thought, my customers love me too, they wouldn't try to get me in trouble. And I knew instinctively that they loved this warm, friendly, southern grandma-type person.

Some manager came in from the home-office, and had a fit, she said. "They thought it was some terrible thing, that I had worn them all these years," and rolled her eyes again.

I'm sorry, I told her, I loved the pins. I collect them, too.

"Lots of women do," she replied, "and they all liked them, told me they enjoyed the fact that there was some originality around here!" She shrugged, shook her head, and then asked me to key in my PIN for my debit card.

And I left, walking past the identical smocks, with all the identical flair. For some reason, I just wanted to cry.

"You want to express yourself, don't you?"

Indeed, wouldn't that be nice?